“Thou and I are One”: What As You Like It Teaches Us about Friendship

By: E.J. Lawrence

I am currently in the middle of teaching my Shakespeare unit to my students. I suppose that’s why, when the theme of female friendship came up this month, I immediately thought of Rosalind and Celia from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. While this isn’t a play I’ve ever taught before, it is one of my favorites, and one of the reasons I love it so much is because of the beautiful depiction of friendship between these two women.

In this play, Rosalind is a young woman whose father is out of favor with his brother, the treacherous duke–and he is thus exiled–but Celia, the duke’s daughter, so loves her friend that she begs Rosalind be allowed to stay. The duke dotes on his daughter and cannot deny her this request…until he, for no real reason other than mad jealousy, rescinds his offer and tells Rosalind she must leave immediately, on pain of death. Celia tries to beg for her friend and cousin’s life again, but this time, is denied. Rather than stay at home and mourn for her lost companion, Celia chooses to run away with Rosalind, and the two girls escape to the forest where they meet a shepherd, a band of merry men, and their eventual love interests.

When we first meet Rosalind and Celia, Celia is trying to cheer up Rosalind because of her father’s exile. Though Rosalind is initially reticent, the two end that portion of their conversation with an exchange of witty repartee. The wordplay shows both women to be intelligent and quick, treating conversation like a skill they’ve both sharpened on each other for years. It’s a game they enjoy and are both good at, so it makes for not only comedic dialogue, but also shows that the two friends “get” each other. They even often conspire to “outfool the fool” when they make jokes at Touchstone’s (“the fool’s”) expense. While they’re talking about whether Fortune and Nature work together or not, Touchstone enters, and their course of conversation turns to make fun at his expense:

CELIA

No? when Nature hath made a fair creature, may she
not by Fortune fall into the fire? Though Nature
hath given us wit to flout at Fortune, hath not
Fortune sent in this fool to cut off the argument?

ROSALIND

Indeed, there is Fortune too hard for Nature, when
Fortune makes Nature’s natural the cutter-off of
Nature’s wit.

CELIA

Peradventure this is not Fortune’s work neither, but
Nature’s; who perceiveth our natural wits too dull
to reason of such goddesses and hath sent this
natural for our whetstone; for always the dulness of
the fool is the whetstone of the wits. How now,
wit! whither wander you?1

1200px-Before_the_Duke's_Palace–Rosalind,_Celia,_Orlando,_the_Duke_&_Attendants_(Shakespeare,_As_You_Like_It,_Act_1,_Scene_2)_MET_DP85957
“Before the Duke’s Palace” (1800)

This joke, which is essentially saying that fools exist to be made fun of, and that must be why Touchstone has arrived, has built for several lines. Such a joke requires the skill and teamwork of two people who have known each other for some time, and thus know how to set each other up for a punchline. We all have someone with whom we share jokes–inside jokes, puns, etc. These “shared” jokes are usually only between those with whom we share more than just jokes. Witty back-and-forths require a connection, and inside jokes–like the one here between Celia and Rosalind–require an “inner circle” connection. We don’t often joke around in this manner with someone we aren’t close to, and we certainly don’t expect mere acquaintances or “friends of circumstances” to deliver when we set them up for a punchline. These two have a friendship built on common intellect, yes, but also on years of close communication.

It’s more than just their sense of humor that cements them as friends. It’s also their willingness to walk through fire for one another. When Rosalind is banished by Celia’s father, she declares she is now alone. Celia responds: “Rosalind lacks then the love/ Which teacheth thee that thou and I am one:/ Shall we be sunder’d? shall we part, sweet girl?/ No: let my father seek another heir.”2 Celia is not banished; she isn’t the one who must leave. She could have provided her friend with some supplies and sent her on her way, choosing to continue her life in comfort. Instead, she dons the clothes of a peasant girl and runs with her cousin into the forest, giving up every scrap of wealth and comfort she had to give her closest companion some comfort.

To me, that’s the greatest depiction of friendship there is. John 15:13 says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”3 That, essentially, is what Celia does for Rosalind. She risks death and physical discomfort for her closest companion.

Rosalind_and_Celia
“Rosalind and Celia” (1870)

Once in the forest, Rosalind disguises herself as a man and Celia disguises herself as a peasant, and the two women conceal each other’s identities as they find mischief, mayhem, love, and family in the forest. In the end, in true comedic fashion, everything works out for both women–mostly thanks to Rosalind’s quick-thinking and Celia’s careful protection of her friend’s identity. And while, for me, the play holds many great moments (Jacques’ speeches speak to my soul…which should probably alarm me), my favorite part has always been the beautiful friendship between Celia and Rosalind–their matched wits, their compassion, and the way they protect and look out for each other in the darkest of circumstances.

  1. Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Act I.Scene 2, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/asyoulikeit/full.html
  2. —. As You Like It. Act I. Scene 2, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/asyoulikeit/full.html
  3. The Bible, King James Version, Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+15%3A13&version=KJV
  4. Featured Picture: “Rosalind and Celia” (1909)

The Problem of Ophelia

By Carrie Gessner

For an avid reader, I’ve never been a huge fan of the so-called western “canon.” One of the biggest reasons is that it centers male stories. Consequently, one of the most interesting and wonderful things about contemporary fiction is how certain authors engage with those stories and challenge them by revisiting families tales from a female character’s point of view. In The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood looks at Penelope’s life before, during, and after Odysseus’s twenty-year absence. In Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin takes a minor character from The Aeneid and expands on her story. And in Ophelia, Lisa Klein seeks to give justice to a character who receives none in her original text.

I appreciate Shakespeare. What English major doesn’t? But even though it borders on the irreverent in literature circles, I always found myself drawn more to the comedies than to the tragedies. Not only are they more fun, but they tend to feature more women and to feature them in more prominent roles. Beatrice, Viola, Rosalind—they’re all admirable and enviable in different ways. Ophelia, though? Ophelia is a very different story. She always impresses on me a deep sadness.

ophelia 03
Ophelia by Alexandre Cabanel, 1883

My freshman writing course was focused on Hamlet. I’ve seen so many adaptations and interpretations of that play that I can’t count them all, but one aspect consistently bothered me in all of them—Ophelia. She’s really handed a raw deal. Throughout the play, she’s infantilized, mocked, and forgotten. To top it all off, she goes mad and she dies. Specifically, she dies in a horrific way that’s typically coded as feminine—drowning. It’s not shown on stage, but Queen Gertrude recounts to Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, what happened:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream….
There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. [1]

Ophelia succumbs to grief and madness after Hamlet kills her father, Polonius. When she’s collecting willow leaves to make into crowns, a branch breaks and she falls into the brook. She sings while her clothes keep her afloat for a bit, not appearing to realize she’s in danger. Then she sinks. It’s a sad fate, even sadder when you realize someone must have been close enough to see this (in order to relay it to Gertrude) but they didn’t step in to help.

ophelia 01
Ophelia by John William Waterhouse, 1894

In “Beware of Death by Water: Women in Myth and Fiction,” Betty Krasne examines why women and water so often go together in fiction. Typically, for male protagonists, water symbolizes destiny and rebirth. For female protagonists, though, water represents both her passive nature and her inescapable, tragic fate. When Ophelia falls, she takes no action either to save herself from drowning or to hasten her demise along. She is no master of her own fate, but nor would we expect her to be when she has no mother to teach her the ways of the world. She is alone, but not by choice. Her death can be interpreted as the result of neglect from the very people who should love her most.

Water also symbolizes purity. After having her virtue questioned by those same people—Hamlet, her brother, and her father—Ophelia is essentially isolated, and that isolation drives her, in one way or another, to the brook. Whereas male characters can be metaphorically reborn in order to find happiness in the world, women “could regain lost esteem, cleanse themselves, by being reborn into the new world” [2] through drowning, according to Krasne. “Perhaps it follows that there is no woman as pure as a drowned woman—one symbolically purified once and for all.” [2] Does her death “purify” her in Hamlet’s eyes? Even if it does, he’s not the one I’m concerned about.

opheliaThe passivity of Ophelia’s death coupled with later statements in the play that suggest it was far from an accident leave us with ambiguity. Did she fall, as Gertrude suggests, and was not in her right mind enough to save herself or even, in fact, realize the danger she was in? Or, as a gravedigger suggests, did she see death as the only way to escape the cage the men in her life had created for her? Either way, her drowning instills discomfort, one Klein attempts to lessen by having her escape it entirely. With her knowledge of herbs and medicines as well as help from Horatio and even Gertrude, she’s able to fake her own death and restart her life in a convent. Though she knows no one outside Elsinore, she can’t get any more alone than she was in the castle. By paying attention to her when no one else does, Klein portrays an Ophelia who is “the author of [her] tale, not merely a player in Hamlet’s drama or a pawn in Claudius’s deadly game.” [3] And even though it has to smudge the source material in order to get there, Ophelia is finally granted a just ending.


[1] Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, IV.7.162-163, 169-180.

[2] Krasne, Betty. “Beware of Death by Water: Women in Myth and Fiction.” Anima, 6 no. 1 Fall Equinox, 1979, pp. 5-10

[3] Klein, Lisa. Ophelia. Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 2006.